D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education forced to resign; calls into question Mayoral control of traditional public schools

Last Friday the astonishing news broke that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson skirted the city’s public school lottery to have one of his children enrolled at Woodrow Wilson High School.  In transferring his child in this manner away from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and bypassing Dunbar, his neighborhood high school, Mr. Wilson violated the new policy that prevents D.C. Chancellors from making discretionary placements.

The individual responsible for creating and approving this policy was Chancellor Wilson.

In his apology for his action, which the Mayor forced him to do and that has now been removed from the DCPS website and Twitter, Mr Wilson stated that “my decision was wrong and I take full responsibility for my mistake.”  But in reality, he has taken no responsibility at all for his behavior, instead throwing Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles so far under the bus that Mayor Bowser forced her to resign her position.  Apparently, as soon as Mr. Wilson’s action was discovered, he explained that he had his wife work with Ms. Niles to make the change.  The Mayor then dismissed Ms. Niles because she should have known it was against the rules.

All of this is so sad.  Ms. Bowser has explained on numerous occasions over the years that when she approached Ms. Niles about becoming her Deputy Mayor for Education she was turned down.  The Mayor has proudly bragged that it took four requests before Ms. Niles changed her mind.  The reality is that Ms. Niles should have stayed at E.L. Haynes PCS, the high performing charter that she founded, and not gotten her fine reputation and integrity caught up with someone who needs an Office of Integrity to tell him that students who cannot read, write, or perform basic math should not graduate from high school.

The entire incident now calls into question the turning over of the traditional public schools to Mayoral control.  Michelle Rhee was fortunate that she resigned because citizens were ready to run her mean-spirited persona out of town.  Kaya Henderson was the reform-minded Rhee with a pleasant demeanor, and she was extremely well respected until it was determined that it was under her reign that there were discretionary placements for politically well-positioned friends which led to the current policy that Mr. Wilson ignored.   It was also while she was in office that students received diplomas who rarely came to class.  Now we have the Wilson mess.

Alternatively, pundits are pointing to the academic progress that students are making as a plea not to go back to the old Board of Education days when it was running the show.  However, and it really pains me to say this, I’m starting to have doubts about the validity of these results.

If the Mayor want to keep her schools she better move fast.  Mr. Wilson and anyone associated with the recent scandals need to go as quickly as possible.   Then Ms. Bowser needs to bring in someone who has a proven track record who the public can trust.  Someone like Jennie Niles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excel PCS to remain open; abdicate status as a charter school

News came yesterday about the future of Excel Academy PCS, and it was not the announcement that was expected.  The charter, whose operation beyond the 10 year mark was rejected by the DC Public Charter School Board last month, will remain open beyond this summer but will do so under the authority of DCPS.  It will continue to be an all-girls school.

I will remind you of the charter board’s assessment of the school’s academic progress which was made in November of last year:

“Excel PCS is a single campus local education agency (LEA), serving grades prekindergarten-3 (PK3) through eight, that adopted the Performance Management Framework (PMF) as its goals and academic achievement expectations.  Pursuant to the school’s Charter and Charter Agreement, Excel PCS has not met its goals.  Per its charter and charter agreement, the school committed to achieving an average PMF score of 45% for the past five years of operation. Excel Academy PCS’ average score is 41.4%, and it only exceeded a score of 45% in school year (SY) 2012-13, the first year of this five-year review. The school’s 2016-17 result, 36.7%, is the school’s lowest score yet, and reflects a downward trend, making the improvement provision in its charter agreement inapplicable to assessment of its goals. While the PMF number is an average, the low score reflects overall low academic achievement and school climate. Math results have been consistently poor – both absolute results as well as year-to-year student growth. English language arts (ELA) results have been higher than math, but are on the decline, with student growth now below the state average in ELA as well. Reading and math growth for grades K through two, as measured by NWEA MAP, has been below 50 for the past four years. Both attendance and re-enrollment rates have also been below DC averages in every year of the review period.  Separate and apart from the determination of the school’s goal and academic achievement expectation attainment, DC PCSB staff has determined that the school has not committed a material violation of law or of its charter, has adhered to generally accepted accounting principles, has not engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement, and is economically viable. Based on these findings, DC PCSB staff recommends that the DC PCSB Board vote to initiate revocation proceedings of the school’s charter, with a final date of operation on June 30, 2018.”

Once the board voted to close Excel, the word on the street was that two high performing charter school networks, KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS, were interested in taking over the school.  This information was confirmed to me by teachers from Excel at the 2018 FOCUS Charter School Conference, and again just this week by Dr. Darren Woodruff, chairman of the DC PCSB.  Whenever there is a decision to revoke a school’s charter, it is the hope that the facility would come under the auspices of schools that have a solid track record of producing strong academic results.  Unfortunately, in this case, this is not the path that the charter decided to pursue.

It frankly saddens me that the Excel students of Ward 8 will not longer be held to the high accountability standards of the DC PSCB.

The move by Excel is not unprecedented.  In 2014, Hospitality High School joined DCPS after it decided to relinquish its charter in the face of low academic performance.  At the end of 2015 it was closed and its students dispersed to one of three traditional schools.

Now we will watch as students, parents, and educators, who were used to functioning under the framework of a charter, make the transition to a traditional school system.

 

 

 

 

 

President Trump proposes to end D.C. college scholarship program

News broke like wildfire yesterday that President Trump’s most recent fiscal 2019 federal budget submission includes in it the elimination of DCTAG.  Here’s a description of the scholarship plan by the Washington Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

“Through the tuition program, tens of thousands of students have received $350 million to enroll at 578 colleges. Students can receive as much as $10,000 a year to attend public universities outside the city, or up to $2,500 to enroll in a private college in the D.C. metro area or at any historically black college or university across the nation.

The grants are available to all District students — except high-income families — but student advocates say the money makes the biggest difference for low-income residents. The annual family income cap has shifted in recent years; it once was $1 million but, in more recent years, has stood between $750,000 and $777,000.”

DCTAG was the brainchild of Northern Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, who believed that there were not enough high quality options for state colleges for children living in the District.  My wife and I helped Mr. David become elected to Congress in 1994, running his campaign in Reston.  The program costs the American taxpayer $40 million a year.  The Trump Administration, according to the Post’s article, made the proposal “because of a lack of a clear federal role for supporting the cost of higher education specifically for District residents.”  Ms. Danielle Douglas-Gabriel states that 26,000 students have taken advantage of the scholarships.

A school choice advocate close to the Administration explained to me yesterday that DCTAG is in no jeopardy of being shutdown.  He points to the words of U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, again from the Post article:

“Norton said in a statement that the two-year budget deal reached last week preempts the White House budget, rendering it ‘dead on arrival.’ The District’s only representative in Congress said she wants to assure D.C. parents and students that she does not believe they are in danger of losing funding for the tuition assistance program.”

Interestingly, even the CATO Institute’s director of educational freedom Neal McCluskey finds the move strange. “It strikes me as an odd candidate to target for elimination,” he comments to the Post.  “Surely there are targets far more ripe for elimination.”

Mayor Bowser was incensed.  She wrote on Twitter: “#DidYouKnow that the college education of thousands of DC students is at risk? President Trump has completely eliminated the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program in his 2019 budget proposal. Urge Congress to reject Trump’s proposal. #SaveDCTAG today:

A petition has been started to protect the program which has been signed by D.C. Council education committee chair David Grosso, and he has encouraged others to follow his lead.  My question is why is the Councilmember so upset about DCTAG when he fought so strongly against Congressional renewal of the Opportunity Scholarship Program?

 

 

 

Trajectory of D.C.’s traditional schools is heading south; charters rising

Last week, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released the audited student enrollment for the 2017 to 2018 school year and the news for DCPS complimented its recent accumulation of negative press.  The total number of pupils going to neighborhood schools dropped by about 0.9 percent from 48,555 to 48,144.  The last time that DCPS actually experienced a decrease in enrollment from the previous fall was the 2011 to 2012 term.

Charter schools, alternatively, continued to demonstrate a strong improvement in demand.  The number of students in this sector rose by 4.3 percent compared to a year ago, going from 41, 506 to 43,393.  The figure means that another percentage point has been added to the symbolically important market share statistic, with charters now teaching 47 percent of all students attending public schools in the nation’s capital.

Overall in the city the total number of those attending all public schools grew by 1.6 percent compared to the 2016 to 2017 school year.

But there was also groundbreaking news coming out of the DCPS Central Office.  In the wake of the controversy swirling about high school seniors being given diplomas who never should have graduated, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation joining the investigation, the Chancellor has taken the bold move to create, and I’m not making this up, an Office of Integrity to handle concerns or questions by teachers about the system.  The new Chief Integrity Officer (CIO) named to head the OOI is Dr. Arthur Fields.  Mr. Fields was DCPS’s Senior Deputy Chief of School Culture in which he was “responsible for ensuring that schools have the necessary supports to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students.”  But I have to ask.  What supportive learning environment did Mr. Fields offer to the cheated kids of Ballou, Anacostia, and other high schools when they were deliberately socially promoted?

Sorry, one more question.  Isn’t integrity supposed to everyone’s job in DCPS, including the Chancellor’s?

Over at the charters the picture is much different.  We recently witnessed the DC Public Charter School Board voting to shutter Excel Academy PCS, as well as agreeing to close Cesar Chavez PCS’s Parkside middle school campus, and Seed PCS’s middle school.  In addition, the long-term future of Achievement Prep PCS is unpredictable.

Herein lies the most significant difference to our children, families, and community between charters and traditional schools.  Charters are held strictly accountable for their performance.  When they don’t meet established goals they are closed.

However, the regular schools, no matter the quality, just get to keep on going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testimony of Michael Musante, FOCUS senior director of government relations, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

One note about Mr. Musante’s testimony.  If you watch the hearing you will almost certainly notice the tension between Chairman Grosso and those who oppose this legislation.  At one point the councilmember cuts off the testimony of a physics teacher from Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.  Mr. Musante, in his remarks, is calling attention to the manner in which the hearing was organized and the way in which those who disagreed with Mr. Grosso were treated.  

Good afternoon, Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Michael Musante and I am the Senior Director of Government Relations at FOCUS.  FOCUS supports the diverse set of public charter schools in DC by advocating for and supporting school autonomy, equity, and quality.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

The legislation being discussed today has been itself an opportunity, an opportunity to have the complicated conversation about how to ensure that schools are safe and that discipline is fair. This committee has missed an opportunity, however, in how you engineered today’s 90-person witness list.  Almost to an individual, the educators who welcome DC students into their school buildings every day, teach DC students in their classes, counsel DC students, coach them and otherwise guide them are last on your list. And almost to a person, those educators—in charter schools and in DCPS schools—oppose this legislation.

Instead, for a conversation supposedly about equity and fairness, you have inequitably devoted this committee’s prime time and attention to speakers who don’t stand in front of DC students every day.  It is clear that the voices you value most are out-of-town academics, and self-promoting authors.

DC’s school leaders and principals care deeply about this issue, and at least two dozen of them signed up to speak today.  Some can’t be here this evening because they’re preparing to be back at school tomorrow.

They would be offended to hear an earlier witness say that anyone taking issue with this legislation is prioritizing adult needs.  They would be offended to hear the suggestion that their schools are not spending UPSFF increases (Five years of COLA increases for which we fought tooth and nail) to cover additional supports.  And they would be offended that you chose to beam in witnesses from California, Illinois and Ohio today before hearing from school leaders and teachers in your own city.

The intention behind this legislation is noble–we know that students who are in school consistently have more positive life outcomes than those who are habitually absent or suspended. However, bans that tie educators’ hands will not improve student outcomes.

Further, the bill conflicts with the School Reform Act.  The SRA grants public charter schools in the district exclusive control over their expenditures, administration, personnel, and instructional methods, which includes discipline policies and procedures. That aside, the legislation, as proposed, will not ensure uniform data collection across LEAs, may have unintended consequences on school climate and culture, and fails to provide appropriate resources to equip schools to meet the needs of students who need the most support.

Quality data collection and transparency both leverages changes in school behavior and enables good policy decision-making.  While the current version of the bill moves us forward in uniformly defining suspension and expulsion, it does nothing to improve the quality of data related to actual student behaviors.  Working with schools to create a uniform set of infractions will enable more accurate comparisons of school responses to student behavior.  School use of exclusionary discipline in both sectors has been on a steady decline despite this lack of comparability.  State equity reports, introduced in the-13 school year, provided the first uniform glimpse into school use of exclusionary discipline across subgroups.  Imagine how much more impactful this data reporting could be if it compared use of discipline across infractions and was interactive and sortable by school?  Collecting, disaggregating, and sharing data in this way would turbocharge the trend we started six years ago.  We encourage the Committee to consider improving data definitions, collection, and reporting before implementing any policy changes that limit schools’ available responses to student behavior.

While the body of research is clear there is a correlation between exclusionary discipline and other negative student outcomes, the impact on school culture and climate is unclear.  School leaders have the difficult reality of balancing what is good for each individual student with what is good for all students and their schools as a whole.  In My School DC’s recent analysis of reasons for mid-year transfers, student safety ranked just behind transportation challenges as the reason that a family was seeking a new school for their child.  Limiting school leader autonomy and flexibility in maintaining the delicate balance of high behavioral expectations, victim safety and well-being, and compassionate, therapeutic responses to students who exhibit troublesome behaviors is short-sighted and may ultimately result in a degradation of the very school culture and climate we wish to improve.

Our students and schools need resources not restrictions.  When speaking with school leaders, our organization has heard over and over again many feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of students experiencing the highest level of trauma.  Consider Camden City schools–in their high schools, they were able to cut suspensions by nearly 75% in one year. What did that take on the resource side? An additional four FTEs per school–one coordinator for school culture and climate, and three mental and behavioral health technicians working directly with students.  We are asking our leaders in the city do to the same thing without the guarantee of the appropriate resources to manage student behavior in the building.  Schools need funding for training in practices like PBIS and restorative justice. Schools need funding for additional mental and behavioral health professionals.  Schools need support from city agencies (CFSA,DBH, DYRS) in coordinating services for the students who are most traumatized and marginalized. Schools need additional staff and physical space to work with students whose behavior may be unmanageable in a classroom setting. Before we drop the hammer of banning suspensions–let’s listen to school leaders and ensure that students have access to the robust wrap-around services they need and that those services are coordinated seamlessly between schools, community-based organizations, and the city government.

Again, I think this Committee missed an opportunity today. We invite you to seek out the voices you may not hear from:  school leaders, teachers, students, and those who advocate on their behalf to ensure that this legislation improves data collection and reporting, allows leaders maximum flexibility in making decisions, and ensures schools are adequately resourced to serve their students.

Exclusive interview with Stephen Marcus, Attorney at Law

Recently, I had the honor of catching up with Stephen Marcus to discuss his legal representation of many of D.C.’s charter schools and other issues.  We began with a discussion regarding the charter school funding inequity lawsuit against the city.

Mr. Marcus reminded me that last October a District Court judge granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs, Washington Latin PCS, Eagle Academy PCS, and the DC Association of Public Chartered Schools, thereby dismissing the case.  The decison has been appealed and Mr. Marcus stated that the parties are waiting for the D.C. Circuit Court to approve a proposed briefing schedule.  I asked the attorney about the arguments the charters are making in the lawsuit.

“There are three main issues,” Mr. Marcus explained: “First, we believe U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled incorrectly that under the D.C. School Reform Act that the District of Columbia can ignore uniform funding requirements in funding DCPS.  The School Reform Act makes clear that all operating expenses for D.C. public schools, DCPS and public charter schools, must be funded exclusively through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.”

Secondly, Mr. Marcus said “we regard the District’s use of projected enrollment to calculate the annual payment to DCPS, rather than the actual enrollment numbers used for charter schools, to be a violation of the School Reform Act.”

The third issue relates to the Supremacy Clause and the Home Rule Act.  “We contend that both the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and the Home Rule Act prohibit D.C. from legislating or acting in conflict with the School Reform Act.”  Mr. Marcus made an interesting point about D.C.’s Home Rule Law.  “In passing this law, Congress did not want to have to decide which of the laws it enacted exclusively for the District should be revised or repealed.  So it decided that the D.C. Council could amend or repeal only those laws passed by Congress prior to the Home Rule Act.  Statues such as the School Reform Act, which were enacted after the Home Rule Act, cannot be repealed by the Council.  We believe that the District is therefore not authorized to amend or legislate in conflict with congressional post-Home Rule statutes such as the School Reform Act, which it has tried to do.”

I related to Mr. Marcus that I understood the finance stipulations under the School Reform Act, but couldn’t the Mayor or City Council still provide supplemental revenue to its own school system?  Mr. Marcus responded quickly.  “Yes, they can, but then the District must provide an equal amount on a per-student basis to charter schools.  Congress intended equal funding between DCPS and charter schools.  To achieve that goal, the SRA requires that the District establish a funding formula based on an objective determination of what it costs to educate a student and multiply that amount by the number of students attending DCPS or a charter school. Supplemental funding to DCPS without providing equal funding to charter schools defeats Congressional intent.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group that is coordinating the funding lawsuit, has estimated that between the years 2008 to 2015, DCPS has received $1,600 to $2,600 per student every year more than charter schools.  I inquired of Mr. Marcus if there have been attempts to resolve the funding equity issue outside of the courts.  “There were discussions,” Mr. Marcus stated.  “In fact, as part of the lawsuit, mediation was ordered.  However, the District continues to affirm that it has the right to provide additional funding to DCPS without having to provide the same funding to the charter sector.  In this case, they successfully persuaded the judge of their position.”

I have known Mr. Marcus for over a decade.  He was the lawyer that in 2004 negotiated the lease of the permanent facility for the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (now named City Arts and Prep PCS) when I was its board chair.  Moreover, when charters go before the DC Public Charter School Board on important matters, it is not uncommon to see Mr. Marcus in attendance as their legal counsel.  I wanted to understand from Mr. Marcus how he came to have charter schools as clients.

“WEDJ was the first charter school I represented,” Mr. Marcus informed me.  “I had been on the board of the Jewish Primary Day School.  In that role, I became involved in helping the school find a new facility after it was forced to vacate its existing facility. We were eventually successful in finding a school building.  I negotiated the purchase of the building and then a lease of the building back to the school that sold it to us so that it could remain in the building for the rest of the school year. This experience gave me invaluable technical expertise as well as a deep commitment to helping schools at risk of closure survive.”

Mr. Marcus continued, “I knew someone professionally who was on the WEDJ board, who recommended me to represent WEDJ in lease negotiations.  After the lease was signed, I continued to represent WEDJ.  Because of these efforts, Jerry Levine, a D.C. lawyer, recommended me to Josh Kern, who was then the executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS and was starting to develop real estate for charter schools.  Josh retained me to negotiate several leases, including a ground lease with the District.  Josh introduced me to Robert Cane at FOCUS.  My colleague Sherry Ingram and I began advising FOCUS on charter school autonomy issues.   We have now been working with FOCUS for ten years.”

Mr. Marcus’s practice now includes helping charter schools on a wide range of issues such as charter application, compliance, charter review and renewal, and other matters up to revocation, closure and takeover.  He sees many of these efforts revolving around the interpretation of the School Reform Act.  A significant number of his interactions, naturally, are with the DC Public Charter School Board.  I asked him how he views the board.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Mr. Marcus answered.  “I’ve come before them with schools such as IDEA PCS, the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, Achievement Prep PCS, and Excel Academy PCS.  I see an extremely dedicated board of volunteers who spend many hours trying to get it right.  While I may not always agree with the board’s decisions, their level of attention and willingness to spend time to understand the facts is astonishing.  For example, with LAYC, the PCSB board and staff worked very hard to come up with an alternative to closure.  I believe they have tremendous integrity and are always trying to do what they think is best for the kids.”

I wanted to know from the attorney if he saw any weaknesses in their efforts.  This took him a little longer to answer but eventually he did have some exceptionally interesting comment to make.  “I thoroughly agree with the board’s emphasis on quality, but the drive to create metrics has pushed them to pressure schools to adopt the Performance Management Framework as their charter goal.  This is especially true when schools come up for their 5, 10, or 15 year reviews.  Schools used to have mission-specific goals, but these are difficult to benchmark.  But after a school adopts the PMF, the floors and ceilings of the PMF’s performance indicators increase over time.  The notion that a charter school’s goals can be changed unilaterally by the PCSB is contrary to the School Reform Act.”

“I have a couple of other concerns,” Mr. Marcus added.  “An internal PCSB study demonstrated there is a strong statistical bias that reduces PMF scores for charters that have a high percentage of at-risk students.  In addition, under the PCSB’s own rules, in order to continue operating, schools must earn an average score of at least 45 percent on the PMF at their 10-year review and 50 percent when they reach the 15-year mark.  But I am not aware of any studies that demonstrate a correlation between a 50 percent on the PMF and being a good school.”  I asked Mr. Marcus how he thinks these concerns should be addressed.  “What I would really like to see is an open and honest discussion about PMF bias with respect to at-risk students, the use of the PMF as a charter goal, and the lack of research that directly links a PMF score with quality.  This is my hope.”

Mr. Marcus concluded, “I think it is important that a school have legal representation when it goes before the PCSB, especially when high stakes decisions are going to be made.  The law imposes limits on PCSB’s authority through the SRA, administrative law, and PCSB’s own policies that constrain PCSB’s actions and discretion.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Howard Fuller at the 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!
The Statue of Liberty

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I want to focus my remarks on the theme of this conference, Excellence and Equity.  Not only were these two concepts put forward, there was an explanation included which stated:

Excellent schools are committed to equitable access, opportunity, and outcomes for all students. DC’s Public Charter School leaders continue to demonstrate the strength of this commitment by striving to dismantle the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students.

There are a lot of powerful and meaningful words here. My question is, how many of us truly understand what they mean? And even further how many of us are actually committed to fighting for the realization of these noble ideas – excellent schools, equitable access, dismantling the link between race and poverty, eliminating the opportunity gap. WOW!!

In honor of this being the first day of Black History month, I want to cite a historical fact:

On Feb. 1, 1960, 58 years ago today, four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And by doing so doing they changed the course of history. And here we are in 2018 four Black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu.

Here is my question – quoting Beyonce from “Drunken Love” – How did this shhhhh happen?  It has happened because there is no real political commitment in this country to create excellence and equity for Black and brown children, particularly poor Black and brown children. And further more it has happened because we have allowed it to happen and continue to do so today. We talked about leaving no child behind a few years ago and now we are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a few years there will be some new buzz words. We have conferences, give out awards, and praise ourselves for being awesome but where is the anger. Where is the outrage that year after year we continue to allow them and us to fail far too many of our neediest students.

Last year in my talk, I mentioned a book by Dr. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. I want to cite it again today but a different passage.

Dr. Thurman was discussing the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.  The children of these families are in so many instances being victimized instead of being helped by educational systems in this country.  Dr. Thurman said this about those children,

The doom of the children of the disinherited is the greatest tragedy. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there is no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them are killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss. The normal for them is the abnormal. They are likely to live a heavy life. 

These children do indeed live a “heavy life” and their lives are made even more difficult when the world around them reinforces such low expectations of them and indeed imposes on them words, images and actual conditions that diminish and destroy their dreams rather than expanding them. And indeed sometimes their very lives are snatched away by the violence that surrounds them every day in their communities or like in the case of Tamir Rice by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In using the word equity there is an assumption that people understand the difference between equality and equity. But just in case that is not true let me state the difference as simply as I can: Equity is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.

In order to truly help the children from the families of the disinherited, we must go beyond equality and get to equity. To have a chance to be successful these students require not the same level of resources available to the children of families with resources; they require more resources. Because of factors outside of the control of schools as well as some things that happen to them within far too many of our schools equity creates the best possibility of closing the opportunity gaps in education. Frankly, I can’t envision them ever receiving equity or for that matter even equality. I say that because I do not believe the American “body politic” writ large cares about these children or their families.

If that is true then there are several fair questions to ask beginning with why am I here? Why should we have conferences like this one?  Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day, if equity, frankly not even equality is likely?  I will come back to that valid question.

Let me talk for a minute about excellent education.

For me an excellent education means our students leave our classes, our schools, or whatever learning environment they are in with the ability to read, write, think, analyze and compute at high levels. Obviously what constitutes high levels is subjective. But we do have some ideas about the type of conditions we need to establish in school in order to create an environment that will encourage and support student learning. In Paul Tough’s book Helping Our Children Succeed he discussed the work of two professors of psychology, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. These professors stressed the importance of school environments that stressed three things:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Competence

Excellence is possible for our students if we believe it is possible and we create the conditions to help them achieve – Howard Gardner’s work.

So, excellence is possible, but for the young people from the families of the disinherited education alone is not the solution for them. We must also clearly focus on the reality of the impact on their lives of the existence of differential power and access to resources in our society based on race and class outside of schools and school systems.  I am not sure what the organizers of this conference meant when they talked about “dismantling the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students,” or how they think we will do that, but here is what I do know.

Race and class matter in America.

Young people must see a society where their race will not be an impediment to advancement and respect.  They must interact with adults who have not already reached conclusions about their capabilities because of the color of their skin.  There have been significant changes in the intensity of racial discrimination in this country since the March on Washington 50-plus years ago but race and ethnicity are still factors in determining ones life possibilities in our American society.  I am asserting as strongly as I can the fact that race still matters in America.

But another key factor affecting our young people’s life chances is their socioeconomic class.  Poverty is debilitating to the human condition and the human spirit. (Money matters).

Children and young people who are hungry cannot learn.  Children and young people who are abused and neglected are not going to be able to concentrate in school.  Young people need to see people in their immediate families and their communities working in order to understand the value of work and the connection between education and work.

We must walk a delicate line here because although race and class clearly have an impact on our young people’s perceptions and their life chances, we cannot allow these conditions to be an excuse not to educate them; not to provide them with opportunities for their personal advancement. But, again we also must not pretend that schools or various educational opportunities can by themselves overcome the horrific conditions faced by our poorest children in this community and throughout this country.

Let me return to the questions I asked in the beginning of my remarks.  Since I do not believe we will ever see equity or even equality for the children of the families of the disinherited:

  • Why am I here?
  • Why should we have conferences like this one?
  • Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day?

Two reasons:

  1. We may not truly get excellence and equity for all of our children or change the entire system but we can save the lives of a whole lot of children in spite of the obstacles, if we are not too scared to fight for them inside and outside of schools.
  2. Derrick Bell in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Fight even when victory is not possible.”

So the fight for excellence and equity must go on. The children of the families of the disinherited are depending on us to fight on their behalf.

There will be no measure of equity or excellence without a struggle.

The 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

Wow.  Picture this:  500 attendees from over 60 non-profits representing the nation’s capital’s 120 charter school campuses gathered at the FHI 360 Conference Center to attend the sold-out 2018 D.C. Charter School Conference sponsored by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  I thought last year’s inaugural event was excellent, but this past Thursday’s meeting was simply spectacular.

FOCUS’s executive director Irene Holtzman began the morning’s agenda with a story about her father teaching her to drive when she was just 13 years old.  He implored her to stop looking only at what was right in front of her and to take in the full picture.  The purpose of this symposium, Ms. Hotzman delineated, is to provide charter school leaders the opportunity to spend a day envisioning the broader view of their profession.

Next, it was time to hear from this country’s leading ambassador of school choice, Dr. Howard Fuller.  Now I know what you are saying.  He played the same role in 2017.  But this was not 12 months ago.  Dr. Fuller’s remarks were so eloquent, and his delivery was so forceful, that his words actually reverberated off the top of the posts supporting the room’s adjustable partitions.  I will not attempt to summarize them here because it would be impossible to give them justice.  Please watch this space for a reprint of his address.

The title of the conference was “Excellence & Equity” and after a couple of rousing songs performed by the Center City PCS student choir, it was time to attend one of 37 breakout sessions offered in four blocks around this theme.  It was extremely difficult to decide which ones to pick; they all looked like great ways to accumulate knowledge about this fascinating movement.

I headed over to “Being an Equity Champion:  How Leaders Systematize Equitable Family Engagement” facilitated by Mike Andres, of the Flamboyan Foundation, and Daniela Anello, head of DC Bilingual PCS.  I always enjoy hearing about the value of teacher visits to student homes emphasized by Flamboyan.  Moreover, if you needed further evidence that the staff over at D.C. Bilingual have their pedagogical act together, there was plenty of it here.  On this occasion, Ms. Anello took the opportunity to inform us about the Expos that take place at her school during parent-teacher conferences.  The Expos consist of tables populated by staff members who provide information to parents about topics such as math, literacy, counseling, and Pre-Kindergarten programs at the charter.  But it goes way beyond school matters to teach parents about the D.C. public library, offer cooking and wellness materials, and answer questions about classes for adults at Carlos Rosario International PCS.  My eyes began to tear as she also informed the group that there is an arrangement between her school and the charitable organization Food and Friends to provide groceries, at no charge to parents, so that the charter can encourage the preparation of nutritious meals for students.  You can read my interview with Ms. Anello here.

I stayed in the same room to hear “Let’s Talk:  Is Education Really Still the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time?” led by Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the DC Public Charter School Board; and Nakeasha Sanders-Small, a parent of a student at Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, and a member of the PCSB’s Parent and Alumni Leadership Council.  The answer to the question was an unqualified “yes,” but it was most interesting how the participants got there.  Ms. DeVeaux, who lived up to the high quality presentation skills I see monthly on my computer as I watch the PCSB’s monthly meeting Livestreams, and Ms. Sanders-Small had prepared a series of statements on cards that the audience discussed in clusters of two to three individuals and then again as an entire group.  My favorite, because I’ve written so much about it lately, and the one that Ms. DeVeaux had me read, was “Performance measures are inherently biased against low-income children.”  Ironically, sitting next to me were teachers from Excel Academy PCS, the charter school recently voted to be closed by the PCSB, that offered up as a reason for its relatively low academic performance on the Performance Management Framework the fact that much of its student body lives in poverty.  At the session, the Excel staff informed me that both KIPP DC PCS and Friendship PCS are vying to takeover the charter.  While they expressed happiness about this turn of events they also told me the parents are worried about whether Excel will remain an all-girls school.

After lunch I sat in on a panel discussion on the topic of “Governance and Advocacy: Your Voice Matters.”  Anytime the word governance is in the title of a charter school discussion you know that our local expert, Carrie Irvin, co-founder and C.E.O. of Charter Board Partners, is bound to play a leadership role and so it was the case here.  Ms. Irvin facilitated a conversation between Catharine Bellinger, D.C. director of Democrats for Education Reform; Abigail Smith, board chair E.L. Haynes PCS and former Deputy Mayor for Education; Mary Shaffner, executive director of the D.C. International School PCS; Naomi Shelton, director of K-12 advocacy at the United Negro College Fund, and the newest board member of the PCSB; and Sheila Bunn, deputy chief of staff for Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray.  Ms. Irvin started the session by pointing out that there are over 600 individuals volunteering as charter school board members in the city.  The workshop quickly turned to the major issues facing public education in the District and the actions that individuals sitting on boards can take to influence policy.  I brought up the subjects of charter school facilities and the FOCUS-engineered charter school inequitable funding lawsuit against the city.  As part of her comments Ms. Bellinger opined that, as has been her pattern, Ms. Bowser would not turn over any shuttered DCPS buildings to charters before the next Mayoral election, choosing to maintain her “play-it-safe” approach in education.  Ms. Smith offered that she is not in favor of the lawsuit, stating that a dollar for DCPS is not the same as a dollar for charters.  She commented that there are differences in the budgets for the two sectors and she thought that these variances were fair.  I thought this was an  unexpected viewpoint coming from the Mayor Gray’s Deputy Mayor for Education under which the Adequacy Study was written that detailed the unlawful revenue the traditional schools receive outside of the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

I concluded the action-packed day with Michael Musante, FOCUS’s senior director government relations.  His tutorial entitled “Understanding the D.C. Charter School Landscape as an ANC Commissioner” provided an information-rich history of Washington’s charter school movement, while contributing intriguing details that I learned for the first time.  The modest education lobbyist somehow failed to mention his success in getting the U.S. Congress to re-authorize for three years the Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides private school scholarships for children living in poverty in Washington, D.C.

It was then off to the conference’s happy hour to mingle with the crowd.  An exceptionally positive day ended on a bright note when Chris Pencikowski, head of Lee Montessori PCS, informed me that a proposal is coming to create a Montessori middle and high school for the four Montessori charter schools to mirror what DCI is doing for language immersion charter elementary schools.  He revealed that it is envisioned that the consortium would even include a DCPS Montessori school with a guaranteed feeder pattern to the new facility.

Now that is exciting.

 

 

Testimony of Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy Public Charter School, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Good afternoon, Councilmember Grosso and members of the Committee on Education. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6.

Kingsman Academy serves about 270 students in grades 6 through 12, in a project-based academic program that emphasizes a therapeutic approach to education. Our students face challenges like homelessness and incarceration, and 81 percent of our high school students are over-aged and under-credited. Forty-five percent of our students have disabilities, and a quarter of those students have emotional disabilities.

While I support the Council’s efforts to tackle the overuse and disproportionality of school exclusion, I do not support the Student Fair Access to School Act in its current form. I take this position even though Kingsman Academy has not suspended or expelled a single student in over a year and a half.

I oppose this bill as proposed primarily because it focuses on the symptom and misses an opportunity to address the problems.[1] School exclusion is a symptom of an education system struggling to meet demands to educate the whole child, to reach all students where they are, and to demonstrate high academic achievement using inadequate metrics. School exclusion is a symptom of schools willing but unprepared to take on the challenge of educating all students to high standards while also managing the effects of trauma, mental illness, and intergenerational poverty.  School exclusion is a symptom of recognition and accolades going to schools who show great results on limited metrics with little exploration of the sometimes less-than-desirable tactics used to get there. School exclusion is a symptom of distributing resources for citywide issues, such as improving school climate and special education services, to a limited number of schools on a competitive basis.

Over two years ago, Kingsman Academy made the decision to reduce school exclusion because of its role in the school-to-prison pipeline. None of this work was legislatively mandated. None of this work was required by our authorizer. None of this work was easy.

We made the decision because we experienced firsthand the futility of suspending and expelling students who were already struggling in school. In fact, many of our students came to us from other schools they were suspended from, expelled from, or counseled out of. We realized we needed a different approach to get different outcomes.

At our commencement ceremonies in June 2017, one graduate spoke about being suspended for thirty days as a fifth grader for bringing a knife to school, being kicked out of school in the eighth grade, dropping out of high school for a couple years, and finally making his way to us. He shared with the audience how Kingsman Academy saved his life, gave him hope, never gave up on him, and provided him an opportunity to make his family proud. We did that without excluding him, and he felt and spoke to the difference.

Ending suspensions and expulsions was an arduous process that required much more than simply making the decision to do so. We revisited our code of conduct and ensured that all faculty and staff were familiar with the range of responses available. We implemented positive behavior interventions. We spent time working to identify and address each underlying issue, and many families reported this was the first time a school had done so. We reviewed and revised our interventions system month after month.

We dedicated a significant portion of our limited resources to staffing to be able to change our response to student disciplinary infractions. We have an adult-to-student ratio of 5-to-1 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 13-to-1. One-third of our staff, including 3 social workers and 9 interventionists, are assigned full-time to respond to students’ socioemotional, behavioral, and engagement needs.

We continuously research evidence-based practices appropriate for our student population. With OSSE’s support, we receive ongoing assistance on restorative practices, school climate, and teacher recruitment and retention strategies.

We also experienced unintended consequences. We lost and let go of good teachers who were not willing to work through the change or teach in classrooms where students knew that they would not be suspended. We lost students whose parents did not believe their children were safe in an environment where their peers were not suspended.

Even though we have one of the most challenging populations in the city, we have not needed to suspend or expel a student in a year and a half. Yet our work is not done. We need more. We need the resources to address the problems that result in exclusion. We need resources distributed to schools based on student and school need, not competition. We need improved collaboration between government agencies, community support organizations, mental health practitioners, and schools. We  need to be able to work with the agencies providing our students therapy and medication, but we rarely have the opportunity. The Council can facilitate that collaboration through legislation addressing challenges such as information-sharing and by creating incentives for schools and organizations to create model partnerships to support these students.

Actually reducing school exclusion–and not just on paper–will require more than just the prospect of punishment.

Thank you, Councilmember Grosso and the Committee on Education, for your willingness to tackle this very difficult matter, and we look forward to supporting that work however we can.

[1] In addition, I am concerned that the bill in its current form adds untenable requirements and unreasonable deadlines to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Furthermore, the bill as proposed disadvantages single-site charter schools, which often do not have “victim transfer” or “safety transfer” options available to them and need to be able to exercise discretion to ensure the safety of their students.

Testimony of Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, at the Committee on Education for the Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017

Chairman Grosso, members of the Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Scott Pearson, Executive Director of the DC Public Charter School Board.

The Student Fair Access to School Act of 2017 is a bill which aims to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in schools, an issue that is very personal to me. You see, I was a “discipline” problem when I was an adolescent. I was suspended multiple times, and, probably would have been expelled had it not been for the intervention of my teacher, Dr. Lorber, who believed I deserved another chance. My school had the choice to expel me and there were moments when perhaps they should have. As I think back, I wasn’t expelled for several reasons. One of the reasons was the trusting relationship between me and my teacher mattered. But so too were the wake-up calls I and my parents received when I was suspended. Frankly, for me they served as a strong warning that some of my riskier behaviors would not be tolerated and that I needed to change.

Many years later, as an official in the Obama Administration managing the federal charter school program, I saw how some charter schools were using school discipline as a way to avoid their obligations as public schools. I am a passionate supporter of charter schools as a way to improve public schools but I am equally passionate that they are public schools who need to serve all children.

Because of my experiences as a student and my work at the Department of Education, school discipline was a priority for me from the moment I began as PCSB’s Executive Director in 2012. Immediately after joining, we reorganized the agency by creating a team focused exclusively on non-academic matters, like discipline. We immediately began publishing discipline data that had previously been hidden, and we created strict data submission policies to be sure we were getting timely and accurate data. We introduced Equity Reports to the city, which published suspension rates by subgroup for every school, comparing them with citywide averages. Our staff meet monthly to review suspension and expulsion data and we notify outlier schools to tell them their rates are high or disproportionate. We created an audit policy to more deeply investigate disproportionate suspensions. We created and have held dozens of “board to board meetings” where our board raises the issue of high or disproportionate rates directly with school’s boards. We review every school’s discipline policies every year, to be sure they offer due process protections, safeguards for students with disabilities, and clarity for the school community. We have sponsored many professional development sessions on reducing out-of-school discipline.

This focus has produced meaningful, significant results. In school year 2011, public charter schools expelled 395 students – more than 1% of their student body. Last year, despite serving more than 10,000 additional students than in 2011, expulsions fell to just 90, or one fifth of one percent. We are now well below the national average for similar populations.

Regarding suspensions, since school year 12-13 suspension rates have fallen by more than half in public charter schools, from 14.3% of all students suspended to 9.3% in 16-17. Based on data through December, we forecast this year to be around 7%. A specific challenge that our board is actively addressing is reducing suspensions at a small group of outlier schools. In spite of our overall progress with reducing suspensions we have a small number of schools with highly disproportionate suspension rates between subgroups, including students with disabilities, African American males, and at-risk students. Highly disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline concern us and we will examine the cause of this disproportionality in order to ensure that students are being disciplined in a fair and equitable manner. We are working with school leaders to address this challenge without disrupting the good work and steady progress occurring at the majority of our schools.

To summarize: expulsions are down more than 80% and suspensions have been cut in half.

We are proud of these results, even as we recognize that we have further to go. We are confident that the approach we have taken will continue to produce meaningful declines in suspension rates.

But as proud as we are of the reduction in suspensions and expulsions, we are equally proud of the WAY we achieved these results. We put in place no edicts, no requirements, no numerical limits, no top-down mandates. Through transparency, dialogue, best-practice sharing, good data, and focused attention, we have brought about change in a way that honors each school’s mission and community. Moreover, we have avoided the negative effects we have been hearing about all day that strict mandates can produce.

While our education community has slashed student suspension and expulsion numbers, test scores at our schools continue to rise even as our schools serve an increasingly vulnerable student population. Due to their flexibility, public charter schools evolved their practices, their philosophies, and their cultures using their own methods in response to each individual school’s changing student demographics. They have moved deliberately, ensuring that teachers and staff had the training and the resources they need.

The thoughtful evolution of these practices would not have been possible if, instead of being allowed the liberty to study the problem and craft their own solution, schools were forced to cede day-to-day decisions made by educators to the Wilson building.

I and our school leaders agree with the spirit and goals of reducing disciplinary rates. But we are concerned we are pressing the gas pedal as we are heading toward a curve. The proposals in this bill could put our progress at risk and undo the excellent work being done at the school level.

We must heed the warnings from other jurisdictions. In Highline, Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, school discipline reform occurred abruptly and without adequate funding. Teachers were not trained in alternative discipline methods and school climates had to adjust overnight. Because of this, these districts have seen a higher than average teacher turnover rate and an increase in in-class disruption. I appreciate the desire to go faster and push harder but I urge this Council to pause and not tie the hands of educators. Where Council can help students, teachers and school leaders most is to support the core social and emotional needs of students in the District.

Our schools work with a high percentage of at-risk students and we know many inappropriate classroom behaviors can be attributed to underlying issues. Increasingly, schools are asked to address the non-academic issues facing our students. Those same schools are not necessarily equipped with teachers and proper supports to handle some of those new expectations. As you may have seen reported in the Washington Post, 47% of students in the District have faced some sort of trauma. Students are dealing with myriad issues before they even enter a school building and often struggle to get in the best position to learn. Homelessness, poverty, and safe passage, along with mental and physical health are taking their toll on a school’s ability to educate its students. If we as a city want to truly create equity and see DC on the rise, we need to reimagine support for public schools that helps students outside of the classroom. Without this, I fear we will not be able to make the progress this city’s residents expect, deserve and fund.

As an alternative to this legislation, which I believe is the least helpful approach to accomplishing the goal of reducing exclusionary discipline, I am asking Council to take a more deliberate approach to this important issue. We need an approach that supports schools instead of tying their hands. That approach needs to include parent and student representation, which I would note, was lacking in this summer’s working group meetings.

Our great city is well-positioned financially to meet the challenges we face. We need meaningful mental healthcare. We need to make sure students not only feel but are safe traveling to and from school. We need to make sure housing in this city is affordable and that our housing policies aren’t destabilizing student’s school experiences. We need to empower DC nonprofits who are supporting schools and students every day in so many areas. So, I ask you, before the upcoming budget season, please look at areas where each Council committee can help contribute to making sure the whole child is taken care of and schools can get down to the business of educating DC’s students.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.